How to end Western civilization

[A video version of this post is at the bottom of the page.]

I was reading Climbing Parnassus, a book-length defense of learning Greek and Latin, and it goes into historical depth about the role of education as a preserver of the best of culture. This resonated strongly with me, because I think it explained my own revulsion at most educational practices today: perhaps what bothers me the most about the way children are educated by our schools is the fact that they are left almost completely ignorant of the substance, the foundation, and the beauty of Western civilization.

But the problem is not just a matter of ignorance of books and art. The problem is that knowledge of Western culture has a moral function—it is enculturating. Despite spending thousands of hours in school, students learn little of what can be called the ethical culture of Western civilization, apart from a few lessons drilled home especially hard, such as empathy, ethnic tolerance (not intellectual tolerance), and egalitarianism. Heard only in faint echoes in most classrooms, or in many cases long gone from them, are the texts, the art, and the discussion that would inculcate the rest of the great virtues: self-discipline and hard work, critical thinking and suspicion of superstition, love both as a romantic ideal and as the agape that drives our regard for all humans and maybe all life, good sense or wisdom, and so on. This has been the case since I was a student, and probably since before that, and I think it's gotten worse. As a result, our popular culture has become crass, rude, and in a word (which would not sound so quaint if we all studied classics more) barbaric.

In largely the same way, despite a few perfunctory efforts here and there, most of our students emerge from high school largely ignorant of the Constitution and our civic culture. First, they lack the education to appreciate The Federalist and The Anti-Federalist, or even to read and understand the founding documents themselves, but beyond that they are simply ignorant of the concepts and the defenses of them that, together, undergird our free republican form of government. They have virtually no clue about such things as freedom of speech, freedom from warrantless search, division of powers, and many other things that one must understand well in order to criticize politicians who, today, are actively trying to limit these aspects of our government. And as a result, the government of what was once supposed to be "a city on a hill" standing for freedom, tolerance, and civic virtue has become a nanny state, constantly rescuing us from ourselves, and one of the largest and most powerful governments in history. As the three branches of government each slowly, gradually remove more and more of our liberty, most of our people lack the tools to articulate or even appreciate objections, and those who have such tools are misunderstood and smeared.

Two historical movements, among others, have brought us to this situation. The first is progressivism in education, beginning with Dewey and his colleagues in about the 1920s. This was a profoundly anti-intellectual movement and transformed education from being a force for the teaching of the entire body of Western culture and values to a bland, smothering force for vague "life skills" and "socialization" and "creative self-expression." It is progressivism that has left our students incapable of understanding and appreciating our civic culture and values, leaving us open to gradual but inexorable domination of what might aptly be described as a new empire.

The second—and please don't misunderstand here—is the decline of religion as a serious cultural force for most people. I hasten to add that I'm agnostic, not a Christian, and I know very well that religion still does influence politics, mostly on the right. That's not what I'm talking about. Apart from a small percentage of evangelical Christians, few Americans (and of course many fewer Europeans) take religion seriously, as providing a broad moral basis that structures how we live our lives. Critics of the religious right often seem to forget that Christianity as a moral culture, beyond its religious and political tenets, instructed people to work hard, to hope for a better life, to treat others kindly and donate to charity, to practice the graces of humility and self-respect, to rein in our passions and practice moderation, to take responsibility for ourselves and our dependents, and much more. It wasn't all good, but much of it was. It taught the very idea of obligation, which has grown much weaker for many of us. It was an organizing, all-encompassing, core part of the Western civic culture. But really no more. Many don't go to church; many of those who do go to church don't believe; even those who do believe don't take religious moral strictures very seriously; even if they do, they probably don't understand them well; and finally, those who understand them aren't supported by most others, who are both ignorant and deculturated, and all too willing to "tolerate" all manner of sins. So, as I say, as a serious cultural force, inspiring us to live well, religion is a pale shadow of its former self. Even as a nonbeliever, this strikes me as a truly profound loss.

So we lack both the education and the cultural strength to resist enslavement both to our passions and to our government.

This is why it is so important that we reinvigorate our commitment to the liberal arts and that we show educational progressivism the door. I don't know or particularly hope that we will get religion per se back; I think relearning the classic virtues and the civic culture of the early United States could heal many ills. But if that is not enough, then perhaps we do need some sort of ethical cultural movement, something not associated exclusively with the left, as what goes under the name "ethical culture" is.

We can hope and we can make efforts. But I fear that we'll simply continue to leave our children largely incapable of assimilating Western culture, while we allow our governments both in North America and Europe to grow and become more authoritarian and centralized, running up massive debts. I fear the results of that situation. Our children and grandchildren will be very lucky if it ends well.


Why There Is Free Will

1. Some quick preliminaries

I believe there is free will. I am a compatibilist.

In this essay I will defend this view. I’ve taken this line ever since college, but have never taken the time to elaborate it since then. Especially with neuroscientists and other scientists asserting that free will doesn’t exist, and others buying their incompatibilism, I felt moved to respond.

So I decided to do a blog post, which is a lot easier than doing research and writing a journal article, which frankly I don’t have time to do these days (I’ve got a startup). To the philosophers out there: I know I’m probably just reinventing the wheel.

Let me admit up front that while I was trained as a philosopher, this isn’t my area of expertise. While I have given this argument some thought over many years, this isn’t a researched academic paper. I don’t claim to have the final word. That would take a book or two.

2. Some observations about the concept of free will

Free will exists and is compatible with determinism. The way to defend this is by explaining what “free will” means—and, more importantly, by arguing against an assumption about “free will” that incompatibilists make.

The way to motivate an argument for a certain definition is to make some observations about free will, and then hunt about for a concept that answers to those observations.

(1)   Free will gives us moral responsibility.
It is the freedom of our will that accounts for our being morally responsible for our actions. If we are guilty of doing something wrong, or praiseworthy for doing something right, then we must have acted freely; if we had no control and are not answerable for our actions, neither can we be praised or blamed.

(2)   Free will gives us our human dignity.
Whatever else we might want to say about it, it is our freedom that gives us our dignity qua human beings. I don’t merely mean our political dignity as citizens, though that is surely related; I mean our dignity as unique, valuable individuals who deserve the regard of other individuals and institutions. This is a common assumption about free will and dignity. This is why, for example, B.F. Skinner titled one of his books Beyond Freedom and Dignity.

(3)   Sometimes we act with free will, and sometimes we don’t.
If the concept of free will is to have some value, it should have instances where it applies and instances where it doesn’t apply.

(4)   The law gives us a clue as to when we lack free will.
The law finds people lacking in free will, and hence (in keeping with proposition (1)) less culpable or sometimes completely innocent, when people are insane, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, hypnosis, brainwashing, and of course under duress.

Now let’s see if we can find a concept of free will that makes these four observations come out true.

3. Why does free will require a lack of causal determination?

The assumption incompatibilists make is that freedom of will requires a lack of causal determination. But why make that assumption?

A common way to formulate the problem motivates an argument. If we are free, philosophers often point out, then we have the sense that we “could have done otherwise.” But science increasingly shows us that we couldn’t have done otherwise, say determinists; there was just one causal path we could have taken. And if we couldn’t have done otherwise, then we weren’t free, even if it seemed that we were. Freedom is just an illusion.

The problem with this lies in the operative phrase, “could have done otherwise”: it isn’t obvious what this means. “Could” makes the phrase modal, one about possibility, and as such it is deeply freighted; in fact, it carries a lot of theoretical freight. Sometimes “possible” means logically possible, sometimes physically possible, and sometimes it simply means consistent-with-some-assumptions.

Now, when we act freely, and could have done otherwise, which sense of “possibility” do we actually mean? The incompatibilist says, “physical possibility.” But why think that? Why think that, when we assert that we could have done otherwise, we mean it was physically possible for us to do otherwise? That seems far too strong to me.

Similarly, I see no reason to think that free will requires a lack of causal determination. This is a common assumption, and it seems to be commonsensical; but on examination it becomes clear that it is not.

The problem is that it does not square with my four observations. Let’s go through them in turn.

(1) Does lack of causal determination give us moral responsibility? One might say so, because if we aren’t determined, then we are the original source of our actions, and nothing and nobody else can be credited or blamed for our actions.

But on reflection, this doesn’t make very much sense, at least not to me. If indeterminism were true, then our decisions would have no cause whatsoever (or at least an inadequately determining cause) and it is the lack of a cause that would make us responsible for them. But why should we be saddled with the responsibility of decisions that lack causes? On the one hand, sure, it makes sense that since the decisions come from us, they have to do with us; but it is their failure to have a cause that makes us responsible. Wouldn’t it make more sense, in that case, to say that our decisions can’t be blamed on us precisely because they lack any causes? Why would the causelessness of our decisions make us responsible for them?

As far as explanations of free will go, we can do better (as I’ll argue further down).

(2) Does lack of causal determination give us our dignity? This makes even less sense. Death penalty critics find a basic level of human dignity even in murderers. What does our will’s lacking a cause have to do with that? Imagine a death row inmate’s defense making the following argument: “Your honor,” the defense says, “we cannot put John Doe to death. After all, like all of us, he has dignity. His decisions are uncaused.” Surely that’s a non sequitur.

(3) Is it possible that we sometimes have free will, and sometimes we don’t, on the view that free will is uncaused? It seems it would be more of an all-or-nothing affair. If determinism is generally correct, then the “free will is uncaused” view would entail that we never have free will. I think that philosophy’s main subject is concepts that are found and applied in natural language. If, by some proposed definition of a word, the word does not apply where we ordinarily think it does, that is excellent reason to think that that definition is incorrect. This is all the more true if a definition is available that does justice to the assumptions we ordinarily make about the concept.

(4) The law makes assumptions about free will. As I said above, legal concepts of freedom, which I suppose are grounded in the ordinary notion of free will, are used to distinguish between culpable and non-culpable (or less-culpable) states of mind. Does the “free will is uncaused” view do justice to these legal concepts?

Surely not. After all, when a court asserts that a defendant lacks free will, and is found not guilty by reason of insanity, are they saying that the defendant’s will was causally determined, whereas normally it is not? Of course not. Abstruse questions of causal determinism don’t even enter legal deliberations. Questions about whether the defendant was functioning normally, unimpaired, not under duress, etc., however, do.

As with moral responsibility and dignity, lack of causal determination doesn’t appear to explain such legal concepts—which are eminently useful and consequential—at all.

4. A commonsense notion of free will

We are discussing free will; we may take a clue from the word free.

Sometimes the will is free, and sometimes it isn’t. So when it is free, of what is it free? Free will lacks something; it lacks constraints of some sort. What sort?

We merely have to look at the four observations about free will to find an answer suggested. Let’s take observation (4) first. Notice what circumstances lead us to say that a defendant in a legal case did not act freely: such things as duress, severe alcohol- or drug-induced impairment, hypnosis, brainwashing, sleep (as in action taken during sleepwalking), senility, insanity, and let’s not forget childhood. If those circumstances prevent, remove, or impair our freedom of will, then what can we say, in general, about what freedom of will is?

I propose the following account:

The will is free, if it is an operation of a normally-functioning brain that is not impaired by anything that would prevent normal, rational, adult deliberation on our actions, whether or not we actually perform such deliberation.

If I act without thought, I might still act freely, because I could have stopped, taken stock, and restrained myself, even if I didn’t; I “could have” in the sense that nothing was stopping me.

Next let’s see how this account makes sense of my four observations about freedom.

As to (4), I listed circumstances that I said do, or probably should, prevent legal culpability. Each circumstance is rather handily explained by this account. Duress, of course, can cause us to make decisions we would not make but for the duress. Drug- and alcohol-induced impairment, as well as hypnosis, brainwashing, sleep, senility, and insanity, do in varying degrees impair our ability to deliberate about our actions normally and rationally. Under such influences we might act out of emotion, delusion, or incomprehension where we would not so act if we were functioning normally. As for childhood, we say children, especially small children, are not fully free agents simply because their ability to deliberate maturely, and regulate their decisions based on such deliberations, is not fully developed.

In this way, as you can see, my account of free will satisfies (3): there are instances of free will and instances of non-free will. Adults are normally free agents with free will, because we are functioning normally and not under duress. But when for example a person completely breaks with reality and starts fighting with things that aren’t there, he is no longer properly considered a free agent with free will, precisely because he’s no longer functioning normally.

Perhaps the most interesting argument for my account of free will is how it satisfies (1), i.e., how it explains why free will makes us morally responsible. This has nothing whatsoever to do with a will that lacks causal determination—again, why would that matter? But what clearly does matter is that our ability to deliberate, and thus our ability as adults to take full moral stock of our actions and compare them both to our personal principles and our legal and social constraints, be functioning normally. We are normally regarded as having free will, and are normally accorded respect qua fully adult, free agents, because we are normally unimpaired and not under any duress. We aren’t laboring under severe delusions, drug-induced hallucinations, insane rage, fear of harm from criminal influences, and so forth.

It is precisely our ability to deliberate that gives us our culpability. Regardless of the causal influences and streams, we (in my view, quite rightly) expect each other to own our free choices, regardless of the amount or type of thought we put into them. That’s because we could have given them more thought, we could have considered how they stack up against our duties, and we could have chosen the difficult but right way over the easy but wrong way. And if a person’s scruples were not sufficient to restrain him from the wrong thing—or, by the same token, if a person’s principles are so finely developed that they impel him to do the difficult but outstanding thing—then we blame or praise the person precisely because of the influence of his own deliberations on his course of action.

Similarly, my account of free will explains (2), or why free will is sometimes thought to give us our dignity qua human beings. It is, in short, our capacity for reason and rational action, our ability to guide ourselves as rational agents, that gives us our dignity. This also explains and comports very well both with the tradition of human rights and, for better or worse, with the view that animals lack the sort of dignity that humans have.

I’ll explain the latter points a bit further in the next section.

5. The functions of the concept of free will

My arguments so far go some distance to showing that, as it is normally used in ordinary language, “free will” is more of a moral concept than a metaphysical one. To assert that we have free will is to hold ourselves responsible for what we do, and in particular to highlight the importance of our rational, deliberative capacity in guiding our action. Those who lack such a capacity are not free. That’s why we do not treat drugged-out wastoids, the severely mentally ill, sleepwalkers, animals, small children, zombies (if they existed), and so forth, as free, rational agents as they move about in the world. They lack free will. That’s why they require institutionalization or special care of other kinds. (Or in the case of zombies, shotguns.) In this way, the notion of free will has real-world use.

This use is important and, indeed, indispensible—decidedly not something we will ever be able to discard, some determinists notwithstanding. This is not just because of how we treat those who lack free will, but much more because of how we treat those who have free will, and so are free agents. Let me explain.

To be treated as a free agent is to be treated as an autonomous individual, capable of making and being held responsible for important decisions. To operationalize this in the realm of the law: an autonomous, free individual answers for himself before the courts and in legal agreements; neither another person nor society as a whole (in the form of the government) may take on these responsibilities for him, unless he is found legally incompetent.

In the moral realm, to be treated as a free agent is, simply, to be treated as morally responsible. How we apportion praise and blame depends deeply on questions of a person’s maturity, basic mental competence, and further on how well the persons exercises his judgment. If someone gives $1,000 to charity for “pure” motives, we find it much more praiseworthy than if the person was forced or incentivized to give. And if a person kills in self-defense, the decision to kill is one made under duress and not nearly as heinous as one taken without duress (or insanity, etc.). In this way, how a person exercises his free will is crucial to how we evaluate the merit of his actions.

It also means something to be treated as a free agent in the political realm. In short, it means to be treated with the sort of respect that adults expect, and that children crave more and more as they get older. Adults give a certain sort of credit to the decisions of other adults; whether wise or foolish, our decisions are our own. The notion of tolerance owes something to the notion of freedom: it is not contradictory to tolerate things we find morally objectionable, because when we exercise tolerance, we respect not the action (or the speech) but the free decisions of persons out of respect for the varieties of human reason and experience. Rights in general are often regarded as being based on human dignity, which in turn is, I think, a function of the normal human capacity to deliberate and take action on our deliberations.

If we jettison the concept of free agency, we are in effect treating rational, responsible adults as if they were zombies, or children, or the enemy “other.”

Without the notion of free agency, we have much less reason to treat individuals as legally autonomous and uniquely competent to speak for themselves. In such a case, the law can disregard the wishes of individuals and replace them with somebody else’s notion of what serves the individual’s (or the public) good. Without the notion of free agency, we are neither to be praised nor blamed for our actions, or if we are, our good actions are praised not as our own achievements but as the community’s, and our bad actions are criticized not as our faults but the community’s. And without a robust notion of free will and free agency to inform concepts of political freedom, we are treated as children, and governments tend to act paternalistically, as “Big Brother.” Treating their citizens like children, governments do not credit citizens with the free agency, and therefore the basic levels of tolerance and rights, that citizens normally feel they deserve.

In general, it is the freedom of will that forms the basis for political freedom and human rights.

Those who claim we don’t have free will seem to be completely unaware of these deeply important functions that free agency play in our legal, moral, and political life. If one accords freedom of contract little respect, thinks culpability is always collective and morality generally outdated, and has contempt for tolerance, rights, and dignity of one’s political enemies, then one will also probably be comfortable chucking the notion of free will.

6. What about determinism?

The account advocated here may be especially difficult to swallow if you have drawn a strong equation between “free will” and “uncaused will.” Some people who discuss free will and determinism ad nauseam appear simply to assume there is such an equation; and so incompatibilism seems obvious to them.

Nevertheless, I think the arguments above make it clear that “free will” doesn’t mean “uncaused will.”

There remains a difficult problem. Many people do, for whatever reason, have the overwhelming sense that, if our decisions are completely determined by forces ultimately outside of us, then those decisions simply are not free. And perhaps in that case we don’t have moral responsibility for our actions. It might not be a matter of definition, but it’s a strong intuition nevertheless. So, some might find what I’ve said about the meaning of “free will” plausible, but still find themselves unable to agree that we have free will for the simple reason that it seems incompatible with determinism. Call this the “incompatibilist intuition.”

So there’s one part of my case in defense of free will, namely, I need to explain where the incompatibilist intuition comes from—and then explain, further, why this intuition is wrong.

Presumably, the intuition originates approximately like this: if I lack control over all the inputs to my decision, then I lack ultimate control over my decision as well. It is one thing to be able to deliberate about whether I’ll have soup or salad, and perhaps that gives us the illusion of control; but unless we can go back in time and control our own parents and teachers, we don’t really have control over whatever habits and principles we bring to bear in our deliberations.

This, I want to argue, is irrelevant to free will.

When we are deciding whether someone acted freely and is responsible for, say, committing an assault, we do not really care whether their parents taught them to be mean. Maybe they did; too bad, if so. If we accord them respect as free agents then we credit them with the ability to change.

But more to the point, we credit adults with their principles and habits, and the decisions that flow from them, as all coming from themselves. The point can be made more forcefully and relevantly: such principles and habits are part of who we are. Insofar as the person’s moral identity or selfhood partly consists of such things as internalized principles and habits—insofar as things like selfless honesty or self-serving dishonesty are part of who a person isthen in acting out of such principles and habits we are expressing ourselves. This is why our actions are free. When we credit a decision or action as free, and a person as a free agent, we are honoring the choice as flowing from “who the person is,” from the person’s identity or selfhood.

It is true that “the people we are” is made by our upbringing, environment, and genes, and that our decisions are influenced by various ephemera. And all of that might indeed mean that we are determined by those inputs. Nevertheless, whatever I—bundles of principles and habits that I am—happen to decide is credited as my free choice precisely because it comes from me. So the fact, supposing it is a fact, that I am causally determined to be as I am is perfectly irrelevant to my freedom and agency.

Consider an example of something that removes or attenuates our responsibility. Suppose someone holds a gun up to my head and tells me to give him my wallet. I am not acting freely when I hand over the wallet, because a relevant input to my decision comes from elsewhere. Except for the mugger’s threat, I wouldn’t hand it over. Another example. After ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms, someone decides to climb a tree, because he hallucinates a bag of money up in the tree. There are elements of free action in the drug-induced state, but the tree-climber is not fully free because we do not credit the hallucination as coming from the drug user but from the mushrooms.

To say that a decision or action is free is not to say it is uncaused, but that it comes from habits, principles, etc., that we ascribe to the person himself and not to outside influences. To ascribe a principle to a person is not to say the person adopted the principle for no reason whatsoever; it is simply to say that he has in fact adopted it—that he owns it, so to speak.

I’m not sure many incompatibilists will be able to take this line very seriously, because the “uncaused will” view of free will is very much ingrained in our discourse about free will and determinism. Old habits die hard. But I think I’ve made an excellent case that free will means something along the lines of what I’ve explained.

In that case, we might resign ourselves to talking about two concepts of free will. Then I would agree that we have no free will, on the metaphysical, incompatibilist concept. But I would hasten to add that that concept simply does not matter. The ethical, compatibilist concept matters because we rely on it in our legal, moral, and political discourse.

We do have free will—in the sense that actually matters.


Why Edward Snowden deserves a pardon, explained in 10 easy steps

Let me put this briefly and simply. The government should not be snooping on us. But they started anyway. That was wrong and unconstitutional. When they did, they made their snooping program secret. That was wrong twice over, a cover-up of a wrong. Then they actually lied about the existence of the program to Congress, and the bureaucrat who perjured himself doing so is getting off scot free. Trebly wrong. And now when a low-level contractor, at tremendous risk to himself, courageously blows the whistle on this operation, he is threatened with extradition and very severe prosecution, rather than being pardoned. Quadruply wrong!

1. The Fourth Amendment is clear: the government may not indiscriminately snoop our private things. In the language of the Amendment, American citizens have the right to be "secure" in their "effects" against "unreasonable searches" except "upon probable cause" and a specification of the things to be searched.

2. But indiscriminate snooping is just what PRISM does. A surveillance program that regularly searches private telephone call metadata, as well as private Internet data, of virtually all American citizens seems on its face to vi0late the Fourth Amendment.

3. So PRISM is illegal and wrong. It sure looks unconstitutional.

4. And we had a right to know about it. Why wasn't the decision to start PRISM put before an open, public Congress? It was a decision with enormous potential consequences; it seems obvious that the American people had a right to decide whether it would be surveilled to this extent.

5. So it is doubly wrong that the PRISM program was hidden from us. We should have been able to voice our concerns to our representatives and the President when this program was started. But because it was implemented in secret, we couldn't. When it comes to how the entire population of the U.S. is treated--not just terrorism suspects--we have a constitutional republican democracy, not a secret government.

6. James Clapper's perjury is outrageous. When National Director of Intelligence James Clapper was asked by Sen. Ron Wyden on March 12, 2013, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" and he answered, "No, sir … not wittingly," he was not merely committing perjury. He was lying about a program that Americans had a right to know about, that it was important that they know about, because it affects all Americans' constitutional rights, and they have a right to assess and object to just such a program.

7. Edward Snowden is a hero for revealing the facts about PRISM. If it hadn't have been for the courageous whistleblowing of Mr. Snowden, we would still be ignorant of this massive violation of our constitutional rights. Considering the huge risks to himself, his whistleblowing was simply heroic.

8. It is shockingly and trebly wrong that Edward Snowden is being persecuted for whistleblowing. It is true that, in leaking classified documents, Edward Snowden broke the law. But he did so in order to reveal a much more dangerous sort of official lawbreaking. He arguably had a moral obligation--and, fortunately, the courage--to do so, since he observed that no one else in the government was making the program public. It is outrageous that a person who reveals a wrong perpetrated by a supposedly open and democratic government is persecuted for it by that same government.

9. Instead, those responsible for PRISM--and for making it secret--should be made to answer for their actions. Even if they are not punished, they should be made to answer publicly for their clear abuse of their public trust. They should not have made this unconstitutional program, and just as importantly, it should not have been kept secret from the American people.

10. It will be quadruply wrong if Edward Snowden is not pardoned. "Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism ... should be encouraged rather than stifled." Who said this, and where? A libertarian defending Edward Snowden in Reason, perhaps? Not exactly. It was on the Obama transition team's website in 2009, back when Obama was being lauded as a "friend" to whistleblowers.

President Obama should pardon Snowden and, probably, Clapper too--and, on the assumption that they had laudible intentions, everyone involved in the creation of the program.

And then President Obama should actually encourage a public debate, and Congressional vote, on whether PRISM should continue to exist.

Wouldn't that be something.


Who might you find in the lowest circles of hell?

I liked my answer to this Quora question so much that I had to put it here on my blog as well. I also used it to answer the question, "Why is murder a crime?" N.B. I do not believe in hell.

Murderers, particularly mass murderers, must occupy the very lowest circle. This sounds like a boring answer. Let me try to make it a little less so. I think many people do not understand what a horrific crime murder is. This is a shame. So let me explain it.

Frankly, the crime of murder makes all others pale in comparison. The trouble in understanding this is that murder is more "metaphysical" and so its evil, more difficult to comprehend. When a person is dead, nothing else happens to him qua person. Thus the crime of murder seems to have a short shelf life. It takes ten minutes to sharpen the knife, a minute to confront the victim and do the deed, a few hours for the body to be discovered, a year or two for the survivors to grieve, and then life goes on. For the murder victims themselves, many of them, the terror and pain last for only moments; is it really so bad?

But, no. That's not how it is. If you think this way, you probably also don't understand the economic concept of opportunity cost. The evil of murder lies not in the pain of dying and grieving, but in the enormousness of what it deliberately prevents: an entire life.

If you (wrongheadedly) think of life materialistically, as collecting stuff, then consider that murder involves not only robbing a person of all of his current possessions, it also involves robbing him of all possessions he would ever earn and enjoy in the future. The murderer as it were leaves you utterly naked for eternity. He's stolen your car, your house, your computer, your devices, your toys, your clothes--and everything you would have had in the future, too. That's a lot of stuff!

If you think of a life as a series of experiences, many of which are worthwhile in themselves--"peak experiences" and all--then consider that murder involves robbing a person of all the experiences he would have in the future. The murderer as it were locks you in a plain, windowless room forever. All chance at experiencing books, movies, relationships, food, etc., all gone.

If you think of a life as "love," as a collection of meaningful relationships, then consider that murder involves abruptly breaking every single one of those relationships, between parent and child, sibling and sibling, friend and friend, husband and wife. All of them, all at once, never to return. The murderer as it were restrains you from all future dates, outings, time with children and parents, all of it. He has stolen your power to enjoy your parents, your husband or wife, your children, your friends--everyone you know, everyone you will know, everyone you might otherwise have brought into the world. That is truly an incredible loss.

If you think of life as service, as helping others, then consider that murder involves preventing you from helping anyone else, ever again, in any way whatsoever. The poor, sick, ignorant, and powerless, whoever you might have helped, will not be helped, at least not by you. The murderer as it were ties your hands and makes you watch helplessly as others try to shift for themselves even when they simply don't know how.

If you think of life as the pursuit of meaningful goals, then consider that murder permanently and irrevocably removes a person's ability to achieve anything whatsoever. The murderer as it were chains you to a wall with everything you might want to do far out of reach. The murderer makes every one of your dreams permanently, irrevocably impossible. Imagine how outrageous it would be for someone to come to your dream job and then physically restrain you for five minutes from doing that job. Then imagine someone doing that for the rest of your life. That's what murder does.

There are, of course, some other truly horrific crimes, such as abuse and torture. But murder is worse than abuse. Many abused people go on to live good lives and give life to others. In the end, they would rather have been abused than murdered. Murder is also worse than torture. Think of the war heroes who were tortured even for years, who later went on to have happy families and achieve great things. In the end, they would rather have been tortured than murdered.

Stalin, being responsible for more deaths than any single individual in history, would have to be at the bottom. Hitler would be very close to the bottom as well. Just try to think of everything that these monsters robbed from the world. It's inconceivable.


Is it time to establish Internet user unions?

Since everybody and his grandma have gotten on the Internet in a big way in the last few years, the social influence of giant Internet companies has skyrocketed. Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Amazon, Twitter, and many more wield enormous power over us.

We have given them that power. Their success is built on participation, and we willingly participate.

For those of us who have watched the Internet grow from the time we had to dial in to local bulletin boards, or log onto big mainframes, these are somewhat troubling developments. Facebook makes decisions that are deeply consequential to all of us, but without consulting us. They violate our privacy expectations and too readily share our information with people who might abuse it. Another example is Wikipedia. People who find lies about themselves on Wikipedia pages, who otherwise might have recourse to libel law, are often forced to participate in an arcane and often unfair system. Wikipedia also lacks any filter for their enormous porn holdings, while its representatives continue to tout it as a great resource for school children.

I could go on, but this is not just about Facebook or Wikipedia, or any one website. This is about participatory Internet companies that are so huge that their users--and the broader public affected by them--essentially have no meaningful input in their governance. But shouldn't they? We live in a democratic age. If we participate in a community, we expect to have a say in how that community operates; the community becomes, in a real sense, ours.

The patriots of the American Revolution said, "No taxation without representation." Now, participation and use are not exactly taxes, but they are obviously very valuable to Internet companies, and those companies are now in a position to abuse what is so freely given to them. Why shouldn't we say: no participation without representation!

I don't propose an online revolution. These are issues that must not be left in the hands of the state, wielding "the blunt instrument of the law." If the state were to address these issues, it would be making itself into an editor, and the state cannot edit without censorship. Rather, these issues should be left in the hands of civil society--in free associations of free people.

But civil society lacks effective institutions and mechanisms to deal with these problems. Let me propose one: Internet user unions.

In the 19th century, when economic influence consolidated in the hands of factory owners, the union movement sought to give a voice to workers who, individually, had no way to negotiate with their employers.

In the 21st century, we find social influence consolidating in the hands of website owners. Shouldn't there be corresponding unions of Internet users to negotiate with the websites that they participate in and use?

A Facebook User Union might call Facebook executives to the negotiating table about any significant changes to policy, or else face days of boycotts. That union's nuclear option would be, after an open, transparent process, to recommend that masses of users abandon Facebook for any number of competitors.

A Wikipedia User Union might represent the voices of Wikipedia's users, which have never been represented within Wikipedia's insular decisionmaking processes. They might influence Wikipedia to install a porn filter--or to admit that they have an "adult" website.

In addition to unions for participating websites, there could be unions for special issues. There might be an Internet User Union of Families, which represents the interests of children online. There could be scholarly unions, which blow the whistle on media companies and others online, who get facts wrong and who organize their users' collective influence to engage in their essential role of teaching. There could even be, simply, an Internet User Union, although they would have to think hard about what their goals are, precisely.

But let's be careful about what we wish for. These would be inherently political organizations. The consequences, at least in some cases, could be as troubling as companies acting on behalf of users without adequate user input. One can imagine a "rogue" union--like Anonymous, but bigger--coordinating cyber-attacks. One can also imagine openly political unions that use their influence to flood ideological opponents' forums with hostile comments.

To my mind, however, the best effect that Internet User Unions might have is to organize people to build things that are useful to everyone. I have been thinking about the enormous untapped potential of people working together online since before I spearheaded Wikipedia in 2001. The Big Problem, not really solved by Wikipedia itself, is getting enormous numbers of people to agree upon a well-designed system. Wikipedia would be dwarfed by a system that I imagine is really possible, one that is appealing to a much broader cross-section of the public than Wikipedia itself is. An Internet User Union might develop the idea for such an organization, launch it with many thousands of people ready and raring to go, as well as find enough funding to keep it independent and non-profit.

If you're interested in this idea, let's start talking about the philosophical, social, and broadly technical issues. This is something new. We do not want to go off half-cocked.


An assortment of things that should exist

Occasionally I wish I had time to write a book to explain these ideas in detail. (Some of these are actually book ideas. Some of them are project ideas.)

1. A tutorial system, independent of any university, managed via a neutral online database; and an expanded system of degrees by examination.

2. Textop! I love this idea whenever I think about it!

3. A medium-sized secular (but not anti-religious) chapter book explaining for elementary-aged children, in non-condescending but easy language, why various virtues are virtues and their corresponding vices are vices. It should also explain why moral relativism is silly, which of course it is. I've looked for such a book, hard. I've started to write such a book, but never find enough time to finish. I truly believe such a book would be an enormous best-seller.

4. A system of non-fiction e-books, roughly similar to what you can find here, but which have more intelligently-written scripts, like some of these videos and these powerpoints. I hope to start such a system using the ReadingBear.org software as a platform.

5. This is going to be very hard to explain briefly, and it will sound half-baked, but since when did that ever stop me? Actually, the rough idea (not my version, but something vaguely like it) comes from a Heinlein novel (I forget what Heinlein calls them and where--maybe someone will tell me) combined with my original idea for neutrality on Wikipedia (and before that, Nupedia). I think that civilization could use a society of people who are meticulously and publicly committed to neutrality. Somewhat like judges, but who operate in the public sphere, they do not make any public judgments on controversial issues of any sort. Their role in society would be, rather, to summarize "what is known"--or what various people take themselves to know--about this and that, according to some clear and deeply studied rules of scholarship and neutrality. If someone, or a group, required a neutral, expert analysis of a question, a field, or a situation, they would provide it. These people would have to be experts in ideology, logic, and the arts of communication, understanding when a statement is the slightest bit tendentious, and be able to quickly formulate a more neutral one. These people would be perfect candidates to write neutral Congressional reports as well as serve as expert witnesses in trials. There would have to be a fairly elaborate system of professional ethics for this group, and members would no doubt have to be regularly evaluated by their peers. Among other things, they would not be able to serve in politics, as attorneys or judges, or as corporate executives. They could serve as journalists and scholars, but under stringent rules that do not apply to most journalists and scholars. -- Why such a profession? Because the world has gone insane, and it desperately needs people who are professionally committed to explaining obvious things to crazy people. Do you really think that people well-qualified and publicly committed in the way I've described would lack for work? They'd be extremely well employed as consultants, internal and external.

6. A website+app with spaced repetition questions that teach basic facts school students (preK and up).

I've had quite a few more. I'll make another post later, perhaps, with more of the same.

Feel free to swipe any of these ideas and do a world of good by bringing them to fruition. You might or might not get rich, but if well-executed, you certainly could help a lot of people.


Why is spaced repetition not better known?

Suppose a method let you remember things with a 95% success rate--in other words, whatever information you've put into a system, you'd have a 95% chance of recalling it--and this effect is permanent, as long you continue to use the method. That would be quite remarkable, wouldn't it?

Well, there is such a method, called spaced repetition. This is the method used by such software as Supermemo, Anki, Mnemosyne, and Memrise.

The figure, 95%, is very impressive to me. I've been thinking about it lately, as I delve into the world (it is a whole world) of spaced repetition. Ordinarily, we require much less out of our metrics. 95% is practically a guarantee. With just 15 or 30 minutes a day, adding maybe 20 questions per day, you can virtually guarantee that you will remember the answers.

In particular, I am wondering why spaced repetition is not used more widely in education. Of course, I'm not the first to wonder why. The answer is fairly simple, I think.

The more I read from and interact with educationists and even homeschoolers, the more I am struck by the fact that many of them hold knowledge in contempt (q.v.). Of course, they will cry foul if you call them on this (q.v.), but that doesn't change the fact (q.v.). So naturally I expect them to sneer at me when I express amazement at the 95% recall figure. I can hear the "arguments" already: this is "rote memorization" (not if you understand what you're memorizing); education is not about amassing mere facts (not just that, no); it suffices that you can just look answers up (wrong); we should be teaching critical thinking, not mere memorization (why not both?).

I am not going to defend the value of declarative knowledge (again) here. I simply wanted to observe what teachers (including homeschooling parents) could do with spaced repetition, if they wanted to. They could spend a half hour (or less) every day adding questions to their students' "stack" of questions; then assign them to review questions (both new and old) for a half hour.

Imagine that you did that, adding 20 questions per day, five days a week, 36 weeks per year (the usual U.S. school year), for six years. This is not impossible to manage, I gather, and would not take that long, per day. Yet by sixth grade, your students would have 21,600 facts in recall with about 95% accuracy. These would merely be the sorts of facts contained in regular textbooks.

Next, consider an exam that drills on a random selection of 100 of those facts. The students who used spaced repetition faithfully would probably get an A on the exam. That, I suspect, is much better than could be expected even from top students who used ordinary methods of study.

Would students who spent 30 minutes out of every class day on this sort of review benefit from it?

I think the answer is pretty obvious.


How not to use the Internet, part 4: how "social" is social media?

<< Part 3: How the Internet's current design philosophy fails

4. How "social" is social media?

A person who is "social," we think, gets along with others and does not always stay at home. They mix well. This is, we hope, because they like other people, not because they're trying to take advantage of them. They have an interest in getting to know others and doing fun things with them.

So I wonder if "social media" is misnamed.

Social media features the trappings of social behavior: conversation (with head shots and indications of mood), sharing interests, and doing things together. But how these activities happen in so-called social media are mostly a weak shadow of what happens face-to-face. The conversation is typically brief. It is rarely one-to-one, but instead one-to-many, rather like broadcasting a message over an intercom to a group of people who are only half-listening and busy broadcasting themselves. We often do not know who, precisely, is receiving our message, and we act as if we do not care. We do not expect a reply, and if we do not receive a reply, we are at worst disappointed; face-to-face, if we received no reply at all, we would think the person we spoke to was rude and cold. In many venues, the conversation happens among literal strangers, often from around the world, which at first glance seems charming—and it sometimes is. But after the novelty wears off, we discover that the rewards are rare. Such interactions rarely involve personal understanding and regard, as friends share.

Conversation online is rarely as meaningful, from a social point of view, as conversation face-to-face among friends and known colleagues. (In terms of logic and rhetoric, I have found that it can be more rigorous and rewarding than much face-to-face conversation. But I'm talking about sociality now, not logic.)

When we get online and engage in "social" media, I wonder how much we—most of us—do so because we like people. I wonder if we do it because we want to use people and promote ourselves. This is not social, properly speaking, any more than PR work is "social." "Now just a minute, Sanger," I hear you saying, "you've gone too far. I like people. I am not a user. How dare you accuse me, and all users of social media, of being selfish 'users'?" I apologize if I offend. I did not accuse all users of social media of being "users" of people. That really isn't my intention. But I have an important point to make and it isn't pretty. When you do an update, are you acting like a friend, or like a PR agent? I'll be honest. Personally, I do a lot more PR updates than friendly updates. I find it a little surprising and charming when my friends and acquaintances respond to such updates, but that doesn't stop them from being, mainly, PR updates. Sure, I understand that some people do mainly engage with their close friends. I think that's nice (as I said before), as far as it goes. But a lot of what we say is personal advertising, so to speak. Some have even taken to speaking of their online identities, to mind rather pathetically, as their "personal brand," and they invest much time on social networks buffing their "personal brands." This behavior is "social" in a very weak sense, in that it involves people, but not in the strong sense that it involves building friendships.

Social media is a poor replacement for a real social life. To the extent that social media is replacing it, friendship as an institution weakens.

Relevant links:

I was tempted to try to coin a phrase, "anti-social media," but of course someone beat me to it.

On "personal branding," see this Mashable post.


How not to use the Internet, part 3: how the Internet's current design philosophy fails

<<Part 2: The pernicious design philosophy of the Internet

3. How the Internet's current design philosophy fails.

Websites compete for the really limited commodity online, namely, attention. That much is understandable, and not likely to change. How they compete is the problem.

Putting lots of menus, internal links, feeds, and self-promotional media on pages drives traffic around a website internally, while putting external links and various media on a given page is thought to increase its value and interest to end users. Competition for limited attention also motivates others to link to us (through reciprocal links, which are often automatic in blogging systems). More information seems better, so more pointers to information and ways to organize it seems better. Similarly, systems for regularly alerting us to mail, news, blogs, and so forth are straightforward attempts to grab our limited attention. Software-driven media tries to prove its relevance to us this way, and sometimes succeeds.

But if we really are trying to capture and hold each others' attention, isn't this busy, distracting design philosophy puzzling?

Why saturate a blog post (or other media) with a panoply of enticing choices to other things on our website, when we surely know that most users will, by habit, bounce right off of the page that brought them to our website, the very page that has the best chance of keeping them there? Such internal links might in a few cases get your user to go elsewhere on your site, but it also reduces the chance that the visitor will at least read the thing that brought them to your site in the first place. Why not seize the bird in hand? For that matter, why have so many external links right in our own text? Why don't we design our pages so that, when we are graced with a visitor, the visitor will focus on, and actually want to stay to the end of, what brought them?

Similarly, if we really want to get others' attention, why do we flood their Twitter and Facebook feeds with so much noise? Why do we bore them with too much news, repetition, and chitchat? We are instructed to increase the signal if we want more followers, yet most of us don't. Why not?

Yet if the choices of web designers and marketers  seem paradoxical, how much more paradoxical is it that we, as end users, continue to consume—ravenously—what so often contains more noise than signal? Consider that many of us follow hundreds of people on Twitter (far more than we can really keep up with), that we have "friended" people from high school whose names we barely remember, that many of us welcome in more mail than we can reasonably manage, and so on.

Both paradoxes, of Internet producers and consumers, disappear when we reflect on the fact that we are very anxious about "missing out," and Internet producers are merely exploiting this anxiety. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that we are in a collective panic, a veritable mania, over the fantastic content now online. Information purveyors, working in this frenzied atmosphere, and who are end users themselves, naturally go to great lengths to seize their portion of the online public's attention. Faced with a zillion things to pay attention to, calm, slow decision-making seems ridiculously inefficient. In this atmosphere, there is no time to exercise wisdom.

It's bad enough that this design philosophy looks, at least to some extent, self-defeating for information purveyors. Even worse is that it doesn't really benefit the end user. Consider:

Many of us spend a lot of time on Twitter. Why? The people you're following come up with some quite insightful observations? Actually, not so often. Few can say much that is really worthwhile in 140 characters. The best that most of our Tweeps can do is be occasionally interesting, clever, or funny—and otherwise a waste of time. But maybe you get a lot of links to fascinating news articles, blogs, and so forth? Maybe, yet most of the links go unclicked. You are usually quickly in-and-out of those that you do click. Even if you don't bounce out after a glance, even if you actually read something, you'll probably just skim it quickly and forget it, which means you don't really benefit from even the things you spend the most time on. But, you fret, if you don't follow your feed, wouldn't you be out of it and disconnected? Not necessarily. If you focus on a few high-quality news sites and blogs that cover your industry and interests, if you actually read them, you'll almost certainly be more up-to-date about those topics than someone who uses Twitter as a replacement for such sources.

But you knew that. No, surely in your heart of hearts you know that the reason Twitter exists is not information exchange, but a kind of socialization. Yet it's rarely bona fide socialization or friendship-building. It's mostly networking. For most people, I suspect, we just have a somewhat pathetic desire to see our username replied-to and retweeted. This makes us feel relevant, popular, and connected. Our ego swells with each new follower, reply, and retweet. Yet this is clearly illusory. It is increasingly fashionable to apply the self-effacing epithet "narcissistic" to these, our common social networking habits. We know that, just because our vanity is flattered by public attention, it does not follow that we are relevant, or popular, or connected in any way that matters.

Face it: the only reason we (some of us) waste so much time on Twitter and Facebook is that "everybody else" is there, wasting time too, and we would feel out-of-it and incomplete, somehow, to be drop out. The whole advent of truly mass participation in social media, beginning in the mid-2000s with Myspace, seems to reflect not "the wisdom of crowds" but "the madness of crowds," like tulip mania. I think Twitter exemplifies this observation perfectly.

Facebook looks open to the same observations. Why do you spend time on Facebook? Because your Mom and old friends are on it, for one thing. Are you closer to them now than you were before Facebook? Probably not, in most cases, except for the few comments you've exchanged with people you haven't otherwise spoken to in years. On Facebook, we frequently exchange sentiments (and media) with people close and not-so-close to you, and that is being sociable. I won't be so churlish or anti-social as to deny that it's nice. Of course it's nice. But this style of interaction makes socialization less personal than it once was. If you spend a lot of time socializing on Facebook (I'm guessing; no doubt someone's done a study) you probably talk less on the phone. You probably feel less of a need to spend face-time, or even ear-time, with loved ones. Be honest, now: is Facebook really enhancing the quality of your social life and family relations? For society as a whole, is it bringing us closer together and improving our social relations in general? I strongly doubt it. It seems only to make our social lives more "efficient"—and impersonal, too. Doesn't this social media par excellence actually make us less social, in the ways that matter? Why shouldn't I draw that conclusion? Some might have a knee-jerk tendency to call me a Luddite for saying such things. But I live online and have devoted much of my adult life to building bits of the Internet, so that would be silly; can you explain why I'm wrong?

Wikipedia is an amazing and frequently useful resource. (For all my criticisms, I've never denied this.) But when you look something up there, how often do you increase your store of knowledge, rather than gaining a temporary grasp of not-fully-reliable "fact" and fleeting sense of understanding? Is your mind significantly improved? Probably not. Even if you spent the evening lost in Wikipedia's hyperlinkage, you are apt to forget most of what you come across. It's intellectual fast food; the taste is strangely compelling, but it is not exactly mentally nutritious. Building your personal store of knowledge requires deep reading and critical study, focus on a topic for a lengthy period of time. The design philosophy of Wikipedia—the copious irrelevant hyperlinks, and the way text tends to be written in smallish, loosely-related chunks instead of woven into a coherent narrative—militates against deep reading and critical study. I'm not saying you can't use Wikipedia as part of a program to do serious research and gain solid knowledge. Of course you can. Some people even have, I'm sure. But I doubt that's how most people use it. Its design encourages surface grazing, not immersion.

Even Google Search itself falls prey to this sort of analysis. What could be better than Google, which delivers highly relevant results and often answers your questions instantly? Well, yes. But we should demand more. There is more to search than faux-relevance and speed. When you do a search to find the best possible information on a subject, is that what you are shown? Not necessarily, because what Google shows you is the most popular and the most recent (and now, if you're logged in with your Google account, what they think you'll be most likely to click on). The highest quality results are too often far down the list. Google's daily influence on us may well have trained us to overvalue popularity and recency, frequently at the cost of more significant qualities like reliability, clarity, historical importance, and depth.

I could give many similar examples, but let me skip to a general conclusion.

The Internet is ostensibly set up to let us help each other navigate the wealth of information online and, by speeding communication and new ways of collaboration, bring us closer together. But that isn't quite what it does. When I spend much time on social networks, I find the experience to consist more of noise and alienation than signal and connection. What many, including myself, have touted as a potential tool of enlightenment and increased social connection right now seems to be making us less enlightened, less sociable, and less disciplined to boot. The Internet caters particularly to those who want to promote their work. Because so many people are doing this at once, its most striking effect is to distract us endlessly with what are, at the end of the day, mostly trivialities.

Part 4: How "social" is social media? >>

Relevant links:

I know that SEO people have answers to my rhetorical questions about menus and links. Here is a sample (chosen only because it's highly ranked in a Google search and thus, no doubt, played the SEO game well). But the SEO strategy is about building traffic. It is not about encouraging them to finish reading what they came for.

It's common advice to Twitterers that they increase their focus and signal in order to get more followers; example.

This Google search is a good place to start reading about how social media is narcissistic.

The famous phrase "the wisdom of crowds" seems to have gotten its start in the book by James Surowiecki of that name. "The madness of crowds," by contrast, comes from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I've read the former but not the latter, even though it is free (courtesy a part of the Internet that really doesn't suck).

I read on the Internet that 71% of all U.S. citizens are on Facebook. So, probably, your Mom is.

While I don't recall ever being accused of being a Luddite, I probably was at some point. Nicholas Carr, though, makes much of the purported "Luddite" aspect of Internet criticism.

Wikipedia doesn't seem to place much stock in narrative coherence, contrary to Citizendium.

On the idea that the Internet generally (Wikipedia is not mentioned) encourages surface grazing and does not increase our knowledge significantly, see this speech of mine.


How not to use the Internet, part 2: the pernicious design philosophy of the Internet

<< Part 1: It's a problem that the Internet distracts us

2. The pernicious design philosophy of the Internet.

The way that the Internet is designed—not graphic design, but overall habits and architecture—encourages the widespread distractability that I, at least, hate.

This basic notion is not my idea; I freely admit that I learned it from Nicholas Carr. I did not quite notice some features about the Internet until reading Carr's The Shallows some time ago, and the following borrows from Carr. My analysis consists of two related parts, the first being about the nature of the Internet, and the second being about the design philosophy of the Internet.

First, consider what the Internet is, or the public side of it, so to speak. (Not the technical, "back end" part.) The public side of the Internet consists of (a) information of various media that is presumably of some public interest, together with (b) ways of repackaging, sending, publishing, and rating the information and, especially, of linking to it for public consumption.

Category (a) is rapidly growing to include all of the public information we know of, or at least all of it that can be digitized—and not just all extant information, but also all new information that arrives on the scene. This fact is of interest not just to "geeks," but to everyone who finds books, news, movies, and virtually everything else that we can communicate and share digitally. Category (a) is the concern of all of humanity, not just geekdom.

This makes category (b), what we might call the net's meta-information, all the more important to us. Google makes the inherently interesting information findable. Wikipedia tries to summarize it. Email, texting, and VoIP (like Skype) allow us to communicate it more efficiently. Twitter gives acquaintances and colleagues a way to share the latest and greatest with us. Facebook gives us easy, one-page access to information about our friends and families. Other sites, like YouTube and Amazon, offer us view counts, ratings, samples, and reviews that are crucial to deciding what long-form content worth pursuing.

Now I can explain a notion, which again owes a great deal to Carr, of the current two-part "design philosophy" of the Internet, to wit:

Interconnectivity: information that is of some inherent public interest is typically marinated in meta-information: (a) is bathed in (b). It is not enough to make the inherently interesting content instantly available and easy to find; it must also be surrounded by links, sidebars, menus, and other info, and promoted on social media via mail. This is deliberate, but it has gotten worse in the last ten years or so, with the advent of syndicated blog feeds (RSS), then various other social media feeds. This is, of course, supposed to be for the convenience and enlightenment of the user, and no doubt sometimes it is. But I think it usually doesn't help anybody, except maybe people who are trying to build web traffic.

Recency: the information to be most loudly announced online is not just recent, but the brand-spanking-newest, and what allegedly deserves our attention now is determined democratically, with special weight given to the opinions of people we know.

Something like this two-part design philosophy, I believe with Carr, is what makes the Internet so distracting. Carr found some interesting studies that indicate that text that is filled with hyperlinks and surrounded by "helpful" supporting media tends to be poorly understood, and we spend less time on each page of such text. As soon as we come across a link, video, or infographic sufficiently interesting to distract us, the surrounding mass of text becomes "tl;dr". Over time, we have largely lost the habit of reading longer texts, and this problem is apt to get worse.

Moreover, when we and our social networks place a premium on recency, we naturally feel a need to check various news streams and data feeds regularly, and coders oblige this tendency by providing us various distracting push notifications when the latest arrives. Even more, the Internet industry hungrily pounces on new tools and devices that allow people to share and be connected in ever more and newer ways. The Internet increasingly goes wherever we are, first with the advent of laptops, then smart phones, then the iPad—and eventually, maybe "Google Glasses."

The result is that, soon after we surf to a page of rich media, its interconnections lead us away from whatever led us to the page in the first place, even while our various alerts and, just as important, our habits of checking stuff, conspire to pull us away as well. Ironically, what might look to the naive to be an efficient, intelligent system of alerting us and giving us instant access to the latest and greatest online has the effect of making us unable to focus on any one thing for long.

Let that sink in a little. Back in 2000, what we were so excited about, when we thought about the potential of the Internet, was the sheer amount of knowledge that would be available and presented (and developed!) in all sorts of brilliantly engaging ways. Now it is 2012. Is that what we have? Yes—and no. Some of the dream has indeed arrived. Vast amounts of content are there. Frequently it is presented engagingly (although we have a lot more to do before we reach our potential). But it is also presented in a context that is so extremely distracting that we, even despite our best intentions, often do not really appreciate it. We are not encouraged to study, absorb, savor; we are encouraged to skim and move on.

I think there is something really wrong with this design philosophy. We ought to try to change it, if we can. But how, especially considering that it mostly grew organically, not as a result of any grand design?

Part 3: How the Internet's current design philosophy fails >>

Relevant links:

Nick Carr's blog, "Rough Type"

To see how SEO analysts (and many webmasters) think about recency, see "New Rules: Fresh Content Is King" (undated, natch!).

Of course, the Google Glasses that appeared in the video are probably vaporware, for now.

"Vast amounts of content" that is "presented engagingly"? Well, Wikipedia and YouTube, for just two examples. I didn't say presented perfectly, but their popularity is evidence of their being engaging. Their vastness is obvious. Many more examples could be given.